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Charleston Stage's spirited but uneven Christmas Carol retread fails to satisfy

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
Charleston Stage Company
Running through Dec. 17
Dock Street Theatre
135 Church St., 577-5967

We all dream of flying, soaring over rooftops, leaping over trees. Curtis Worthington is no different. As Jacob Marley, the first specter to swoop onto the Dock Street stage in this year's Christmas Carol, he took a crash course in wire work so uplifting that during rehearsals he almost forgot he couldn't fly for real, such was the buoyant feeling of the experience.

Would that we all were as lucky. The Dock Street audience gets plenty of opportunities to check out the wires during this show, which is a pity. When the airborne actors are lit right and the wires are obscured against a black background, it's possible to suspend disbelief and forget they're there. But most of the time they're too obvious, and the wires aren't the only visible joins in a distressingly uneven production.

As with last year's version, Stephanie Christensen's sets are a mishmash of German Expressionist interior pieces, storybook picture-style backdrops, and more solid, hall-decked sets. Each of those on their own would be effective, but together they just look weird.

Barbara Young's costumes are eclectic, too, but most of them are suitably rich and colorful. Unfortunately, several of the actors who play three or four different characters don't look all that different from scene to scene; with a few more costume and make-up variations, their moonlighting wouldn't be so obvious. In the meantime, it looks as if a childhood incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge keeps cropping up in the present, and Bob Cratchit's son Peter gets invited to a party at Scrooge's nephew's house.

Some mistakes from the production's Christmases past have been fixed. Mike Christensen's backstage effects are thankfully concealed from the audience this time around, and only a cartful of phallic fireworks outstays its welcome as it waits in the wings for half the show. The wreaths of fog don't smother the front rows too often, and even when the stage is packed with 30-odd actors, the action is competently blocked.

Some holdovers from previous years are good ones, including David Ardrey as an unerringly cheery Bob Cratchit, David Hallatt's Liverpool-accented Ghost of Christmas Present, and a couple of original characters, Mr. Wiggins and Mrs. Tabor. These are Scrooge's butler and cook, invented for the show by adaptor/director Julian Wiles; David and Susie Hallatt play them with such charm that they fit neatly into the proceedings.

As the Big Bad himself, guest star Rob Donohoe seems most content when he's being miserable. The veteran Broadway Scrooge hits all the low and high points expected of his character. He gamely shares the limelight with less confident actors like Braden Joyce-Schleimer, whose soppy performance as young Scrooge is redeemed only by his singing. His rendition of "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" stands out from a baker's dozen of musical numbers, where live musicians accompany carolers and Yule-pepped Londoners.

In Julian Wiles' hands, England is filled with fog and grog, bell ringers, a May pole (in December!), and blokes who toil hawking chestnuts and "awranges." But in capturing the clichés of Dickensian city life, Wiles loses some of the author's careful symmetry. This show has more endings than Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, three different narrators, and some extra slices of sentimentality as Scrooge turns over a new leaf (and some stomachs) with his newfound niceness.

As we get older, our dreams of flying fade until they're lost like snowflakes in a warm breeze. But the moral center of A Christmas Carol has yet to drift away, and it remains as effective as ever, even in this ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying show.



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